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AUDIO REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee, narrated by Christian Coulson

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Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.


Publisher and Release Date: Harper Audio, October 2017

Time and Setting: 18th Century England and Europe
Heat Level: 1
Genre: Young Adult/Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 5 stars / Narration: 5 stars

Review by Em

I loved Mackenzi Lee’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue when I read it earlier this year, and when I decided to listen to the audio version in order to review it here, I doubted I could like it any better. Reader, I DID.  A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (in audio) is my favorite book of 2017.  This version, with Christian Coulson’s fabulous, spot-on narration elevates all the best parts of this marvelous book; I laughed, I cried, I grimaced and swooned my way through it.  It’s that good.  Read it – or listen to it (even better) and prepare to fall in love with its naughty, charming, and mischievous hero Henry Montague, his best friend Percy, and indomitable younger sister Felicity as they embark on a truly grand tour.

AGGTVAV is the (sometimes cautionary) tale of two lifelong friends making their Grand Tour told from the point of view of Henry ‘Monty’ Montague.  Monty is an unrepentant rake: handsome, flirtatious, charming, funny, lazy and largely oblivious to his many faults.  Though graced with good looks (and dimples), a winning personality and a wealthy family, life hasn’t been easy for Monty.   His father shows nothing but contempt for him, and his constant abuse – both physical and emotional – has led Monty to believe his life has no value or purpose.  He’s also utterly and completely in love with his best friend Percy, whom he’s convinced has no romantic feelings for him whatsoever. Emotionally adrift, fated to spend his life pining for the one man he can never have, and facing a bleak future at his father’s side, Monty is determined this Grand Tour will be memorable in all the best ways – drinking, debauchery, gambling and wild adventures.

Much to his dismay, Monty’s father has other ideas and informs Monty, moments before their departure, that they will be accompanied by Mr. Lockwood, who will ensure the group (Monty, Percy, and Monty’s younger sister Felicity – en route to a year of finishing school) behave appropriately, soak up the local culture, visit all the most significant and edifying sights. Most worryingly, he will report back and if Monty strays in any way he will be immediately cut-off and forced to make his own way in life.

The group sets off and the Grand Tour is everything Monty hoped it wouldn’t be.  Lockwood barely leaves them time to themselves, Felicity is buried in her books, Monty is rarely permitted a drink, and his heart aches with longing for Percy.  Finally, in a fortuitous turn of events, Monty and Percy manage a night out in Paris.  They drink, they gamble, they flirt… and then they passionately kiss.  Monty can’t believe his good fortune, but in typical Monty fashion mucks things up by hedging about his feelings. The evening ends in harsh words and a distance between them – quite the opposite of how Monty hoped it would unfold.

After their evening out  an awkward tension springs up between the pair and Monty, in typical fashion, promptly makes it worse.  Days later, attending an afternoon garden party at Versailles, he observes Percy talking to another guest who’s clearly (to Monty’s eyes) flirting with his friend.  Assuming the worst, Monty proceeds in short order to tell off his host,  get drunk, engage in an inappropriate liaison, and then, when interrupted in flagrante, runs naked through a room full of party guests to escape.

Much as expected, Mr. Lockwood informs the trio the Grand Tour is over.  He makes plans to drop Felicity at school and Percy in Holland (where he will attend law school), but in a stroke of (good?) luck, their carriage is overtaken by highway robbers.  Forced out of the carriage and onto their knees, it quickly becomes clear these aren’t your typical highwayman, and that they’re looking for something.  After a brief scramble with their captors, Percy manages to knock the leader out with his ever present fiddle case, and the three take off into the woods leaving Mr. Lockwood to fend for himself.  When they finally pause to take stock of their situation, Monty belatedly realizes the men are likely after the small box he swiped as he made his his calamitous exit from Versailles.

Once Monty, Percy and Felicity are separated from Mr. Lockwood, AGGTVAV hits its stride, detailing their misadventures across the Continent as they seek to restore the box to its rightful owner.  There are plot twists, manhunts, guns, double crosses, swords, pirates, true love and more – and you’re never quite sure what (wonderful) thing the author has up her sleeve next.  But it all works, and Monty, our intrepid guide, transcends the busy narrative and steals the show.  Charming, naughty and desperately in love with Percy, Monty somehow begins to find himself as the story unfolds.  Though it would be easy to dismiss Monty as simply a selfish and (disastrously) impetuous teenager, Ms. Lee has crafted a truly delightful, funny and marvelously entertaining hero for the ages.  Monty is far, far from perfect – but his faults are part of his charm, and his adoring – pure – love for Percy, make him impossible to dislike.

Much of what makes AGGTVAV such a great story are the supremely well-written principal and secondary characters.  Percy patiently endures Monty’s frequent and recurring missteps, stoically supporting him through thick and thin.  But despite a relatively privileged life, he’s still the biracial son of a West Indies landowner, and he’s spent a lifetime dealing with the thinly veiled racism and condescension of his peers – and Monty’s ignorance of the same.  For the past few years he’s also been keeping a significant and life changing secret from Monty;  when it comes to light, it threatens the future of their relationship.  When I initially read AGGTVAV, I thought Felicity made a nice contrast to her brother and Percy, but she didn’t particularly stand out to me.  I felt very different listening to the audio version.  A bluestocking in training, Felicity more than holds her own against Monty – she’s smart, wickedly funny, wise and wonderful, and without her, the story just wouldn’t be the same.  She’s a terrific contrast to the sweetness of Percy and naughtiness of her brother and the three of them together are a wonderful combination.

Although Ms. Lee’s writing is fantastic, Christian Coulson’s amazing narration truly brings this story to life.  He perfectly captures Monty’s voice – his charm, his confusion over his feelings for Percy, his sad acceptance of his father’s brutality, his wicked humor, his uncertainty about his life and it’s meaning and I loved his interpretation of the character.  He does a similarly excellent job with Percy’s voice – somber, amused and bemused; and he nails Felicity’s dry sense of humor and no nonsense approach to life.  I wasn’t as fond of his Spanish accent – but that’s a very minor quibble and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the audio at all.  Mr. Coulson is a revelation and his reading of AGGTVAV is nothing short of masterful.  Bravo.

Funny, romantic, and special, A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is this year’s best YA novel; with Christian Coulson’s narration, it’s simply the best – full stop.

AUDIO REVIEW: The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, narrated by Mark Meadows

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Known as the despair of the Davenports, Reginald is a disinherited, disgraced alcoholic who is headed for a bad end – that is until the new Earl of Wargrave gives him one last chance at redemption by letting him take his place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Lady Alys Weston came to Strickland after having fled her home, her wealth, and her title due to betrayal and despair. She vowed never to trust another man, but when the new owner appears, his dangerous masculinity threatens everything Alys holds dear, awakening a passion that she thought she would never feel again – a passion that will doom or save them both.

Publisher and Release Date: 2017 by Dreamscape Media, LLC

Time and Setting: Dorset, Early 19th century
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Lady Wesley

Alys Weston is running from her past, and Reggie Davenport is fleeing his future. Fate brings them together on Reggie’s Dorset estate, Strickland.

It’s uncommon, to say the least, for a woman to be an estate steward, yet Alys has been able to pull off that job for four years, communicating with the absentee owner in writing. When Reggie’s cousin, the new owner, gives the estate over to Reggie, Alys sees her idyll coming to an end. Yet, when the so-called despair of the Davenports arrives at Strickland, he proves to be surprisingly open-minded and impressed by Alys’s success; he keeps her on as steward.

Reggie is a rake of the first order, but more than that, he’s a drunkard who, at the age of thirty-seven, has begun to suffer blackouts. Even he has become convinced that his life is on a dangerous trajectory; a voice in his head keeps telling him, “This way of life is killing you.” He believes that Strickland may be his salvation.

Alys and Reggie gradually become friends, and though they are attracted to one another, nothing more than a few kisses are exchanged. When fire destroys the steward’s house, Alys and her three young wards move into the main house, and Reggie begins to know the joys of a family for the first time in his life.

But Reggie’s real problem is his drinking, and a great deal of this story revolves around his efforts to first get it under control and later to stop altogether. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try and fail and try again.

Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job portraying the inner demons that plague Reggie, and at the same time, she doesn’t succumb to the temptation that some writers might feel to make his recovery all about his love for Alys. Reggie is getting sober for himself, not for someone else. And while Putney does lapse into a bit of AA one-day-at-a-time-speak occasionally, she is able to keep the story from sounding too modern.

Although Reggie is the star of the book, Alys makes a wonderful heroine. She is intelligent, capable, and a fierce guardian of her young wards. Indeed, she’s so busy running things that she doesn’t even realize how attractive she is. But Reggie does, from the first moment they meet when she is wearing breeches whose close fit drives him to distraction.

There are plenty of humorous moments, an engaging cast of secondary characters, and a couple of secondary romances. And I particularly enjoyed how Putney handles the epilogue: after Reggie and Alys marry, the other characters are shown reacting to the news, wrapping the whole story up quite nicely.

I first read this book several years ago, when I was new to historical romance, picking it because of its high Goodreads ratings, its having won the RITA in 1990, and its ranking in All About Romance’s Top 100 romances of all time. All these accolades are well and truly deserved.

Now, at long last, an audio version has been released, read by a veteran but new-to-me narrator, Mark Meadows. I had been told that he is in the Nicholas Boulton/Alex Wyndham league, and those of you who regularly read my reviews know what that means. He is really good! Meadows perfectly captures Reggies weariness with life, as well as his growing feelings of hope as his demons recede. Meadows also is excellent with female and children’s voices, as well as the Dorset dialects. His performance is so good, it’s easy for the listener to forget that there is only one person performing all of the parts. He has more than seventy audio titles to his credit, but this is the only historical romance. I can only hope that other romance authors use him for their books in future.

Whether reading or listening, this book is one that all historical romance afficianados should experience. I would give it ten stars if I could.

AUDIO REVIEW: Provoked (Enlightenment #1) by Joanna Chambers, narrated by Hamish McKinlay

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David Lauriston is struggling to build his reputation in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world. His humble origins are enough of a hurdle, never mind his recent decision to defend a group of weavers accused of treason, prompting speculation that he may harbour radical sympathies. The last thing he should be doing is agreeing to help the brother of one of the convicted weavers find the government agent who caused his brother’s downfall.

David’s personal life is no more successful. Tormented by his forbidden desires for other men, and the painful memories of the childhood friend he once loved, David tries his hardest to live a celibate existence, castigating himself whenever his resolve slips.

But then into David’s repressed and orderly world bursts Lord Murdo Balfour.

Cynical, hedonistic, and utterly unapologetic, Murdo could not be less like David. Whilst David refuses to entertain the prospect of entering into a loveless marriage for propriety’s sake, Murdo is determined to wed one day – and has no intention of giving up the company of other men when he does so. But as appalled as David is by Murdo’s unrepentant self-interest, he cannot resist the man’s sway.

Murdo tempts and provokes David in equal measure, distracting him from his promise to find the agent provocateur responsible for the weavers’ fate, and forcing him to acknowledge his physical desires.

But is Murdo more than a mere distraction?

Is it possible he could be the very man David is looking for?

Publisher and Release Date: Joanna Chambers, August 2017

Time and Setting: Scotland, 1820 
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Running Time: 5 hours 52 minutes
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Em

I’ve read the Enlightenment trilogy three times – it’s one of my most favorite historical series, queer or straight.  I love how Ms. Chambers paces the central relationship over the course of the trilogy, neatly dovetailing it with an intriguing subplot that similarly plays out over the three books, while also linking the actions of her principal characters to the time period.  Well drawn secondary characters play central roles in the progress of the story, but the focus remains on the romantic relationship at its heart.  Although Provoked is my least favorite of the three books that comprise the trilogy, it’s still tremendously compelling and entertaining.  To my happy surprise, narrator Hamish McKinlay’s terrific narration further elevates this moving, frustrating story; I’m delighted to tell you he does a marvelous job bringing the characters and novel to life.  Provoked is provoking… and a wonderful prelude of what’s to come.

David Lauriston is slowly and steadily building his reputation as an advocate in Edinburgh.   Despite humble origins and a lack of family connections, he’s managed to make a place for himself in Edinburgh’s privileged legal world.  However, when Provoked opens, his loyalty to crown and country is in question.  He’s spent the past months unsuccessfully defending a group of weavers accused of treason.  On this day, he’s witnessed the execution of two of the men he defended, and though he’s convinced of their innocence, he’s aware that the case has raised concerns that David similarly harbours radical sympathies.  Stopping overnight at an inn on his way back to Edinburgh, he enters the dining room and to his dismay, discovers it full of locals and travelers discussing the case.  Fortunately, the innkeeper spots him lurking in the doorway and directs him to a private room.

Left on his own and lost in his thoughts, a somber David is surprised by the arrival of another dinner guest. Murdo Balfour is also staying at the inn, and after the two men introduce themselves, he joins David for dinner.  Mr. Balfour is handsome, urbane and charming, and David finds himself – against his better judgement – captivated and attracted to his companion.  The air is electric as an undercurrent of attraction pulses between them; after a couple of drams of whisky, a few charged glances, and a whispered exchange of words, David finds himself on his knees in a dark alleyway sucking Murdo’s cock.  But unlike most of David’s furtive, shameful experiences with men, the encounter doesn’t end there.  Instead, Murdo pulls him up, kisses him – whispering all the naughty things he’d like to do with David – and brings him off with his hand.  David knows he’ll hate himself for lapsing soon enough, but for now, just the memory of Balfour and his dark, dirty words is enough to inflame him again… and again… and again.

David returns to Edinburgh determined to put the night behind him, but even new professional opportunities aren’t enough to enable him to forget Balfour.  He’s consumed with thoughts of the man… until he’s approached by Euan MacLennan, brother of one of the convicted weavers, who believes a government agent betrayed the convicted men.  Armed with a vague idea of what the man looks like and a possible connection to the daughter of a senior advocate, Euan is desperate and determined to track down the agent and avenge his brother; David, fearing what Euan might do if he locates the man, cautions him to be careful – but offers to help.

Shortly after Euan’s visit, Ms. Chambers reunites David with Murdo when they find themselves guests at the same dinner party.  David’s intense attraction to Lord Balfour is undiminished, but he’s distracted when he uncovers a possible connection between his host and the man Euan seeks.  The men retire for drinks and David over imbibes in an attempt to distract himself from the effects of Balfour’s proximity, but he’s thwarted when Balfour departs at the same time.  What follows – a passionate interlude and heated words – sets the tone for each of their future encounters – which happen more often than David would like.  Balfour wants David and has no qualms pursuing him while publicly courting a woman.  David’s unwillingness to do the same – or to even entertain the possibility – angers and frustrates Balfour.  Mr. McKinlay does a marvelous job voicing both Balfour’s cynicism and David’s bewildered confusion over his erstwhile lover’s anger.

Told exclusively through David’s point of view, Ms. Chambers uses the dinner party to masterfully link the two central plot lines – David’s tumultuous relationship with Murdo and the search for the government agent who betrayed Euan’s brother.  The intricately plotting coalesces against the backdrop of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it’s a clever bit of storytelling as the author uses David and Murdo to mirror what’s happening in Edinburgh.  Even as David struggles with guilt over his forbidden desires, he’s willing to question his government and its leaders; conversely, Murdo has no guilt or moral shame over his sexual desires, and though he recognizes the plight of the poor and unfortunate, he has no desire or interest in changing the status quo.  David and Murdo – enlightened in very different ways – are a fascinating match-up.  The combination of their scorching chemistry, intense attraction and clear affection  – though they try to disguise it – is richly compelling.  Their passion for each other is so well done.

I started listening to Provoked very familiar with the story, and unsure whether the audio version could anything new to my perceptions of it.  It did.  Although I struggled early on with Mr. McKinlay’s narration, it didn’t take long for me to begin to enjoy it – and to FINALLY begin to see David in a more sympathetic light. I, much like Murdo, struggled with what I perceived as David’s goody-two-shoes, self-righteous and sanctimonious persona.  But Mr. McKinlay somehow imbues the character with a kindness and sweetness, and an underlying sense of bewilderment over Murdo – he can’t reconcile how he feels for the man with his moral compass, and he really can’t understand what about him seems to trigger Murdo’s mercurial emotions when they’re together.  I finally LIKED David listening to him.  I particularly loved the narrator’s portrayal of Murdo in all his Provoked incarnations – charming, playful, naughty, angry, and even petulant – especially in his last encounter with David.  He’s a gorgeous character on the page, and in Mr. McKinlay’s voice he’s even more wonderful.  I’m not as fond of the narrator’s female voices – they just made me uncomfortable – but his portrayal of David and Murdo transcends these issues.

I didn’t think I could love the Enlightenment trilogy any more than I do, but Hamish McKinlay’s voice truly elevates Provoked.  I will anxiously await book two, and prepare to be beguiled (wink) by his voice all over again.

AUDIO REVIEW: Fair, Bright and Terrible (Welsh Blades #2) by Elizabeth Kingston, narrated by Nicholas Boulton

fair bright and terrible

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Wales is conquered, and Eluned has lost everything: her country, her husband, her hope. All that remains is vengeance, and she will stop at nothing to have it.

When Robert de Lascaux is asked to marry the woman he has loved for eighteen years, he never hesitates. No wealth has ever mattered to him as much as Eluned has. But she, it seems, does not want him at all. Trapped in a web of intrigue, revenge, and desire, they cannot forget their past – but can they dare to share a future?

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Publisher and Release Date: Elizabeth Kingston, April 2017

Time and Setting: Wales, 1282
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content; 5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

In my opinion, Elizabeth Kingston is one of the best – if not THE best – newly published author writing in the historical genre. Fair, Bright and Terrible, the second in her Welsh Blades series ticks every single box on my list of requirements for a stimulating, entertaining and engrossing read/listen. With narrator Nicholas Boulton added into the mix I was quite literally in book heaven – enthralled from beginning to end. This story follows directly on from The King’s Man and covers the true and bloody period in Welsh/English history where the last Welsh Prince Llewelyn is ruthlessly disposed of in the most barbaric of medieval methods.

In book one of the series, we met Eluned of Ruardean who was a strong driving force in the life of her daughter, Gwenllian whom she relentlessly controlled. I disliked Eluned intensely and she didn’t grow on me one iota, so when I realised that Fair, Bright and Terrible was Eluned’s story, I approached it with trepidation and some pre-conceived prejudices. I carried on disliking her, especially after she marries the compellingly likeable and adorable hero of the story, Robert de Lascaux. How, I wondered, could this gorgeous man have loved this woman for eighteen years? And this is where Elizabeth Kingston shows her immense talent for character development – because by the end of the story I understood, respected, and actually liked and admired Eluned.

As the story begins, Eluned’s dreams of a successful uprising to bring independent sovereignty back to Wales is in tatters following King Edward I’s ruthless suppression of the recent rebellion. Coming hard upon the heels of this defeat is the news that her long absentee husband has died in the Holy Land and her son is eager for her to remarry in order to augment his lands and standing. Her husband-to-be is none other than Robert de Lascaux, with whom she had a passionate affair some eighteen years earlier. She put this behind her long ago, but Robert is delighted and immediately agrees to the match, hoping to take up where they left off. Throughout the story, Eluned appears as a woman who does nothing without good reason; she always comes across as cold, calculating and controlling, and her marriage to Robert is no different. Overjoyed at being re-united with his former love, he is destined to be disappointed as he quickly realises that the love he has nurtured is not returned. It quickly becomes apparent that Eluned has a hidden agenda, her goal being admittance to the court of Edward and his inner circle.

I continued to dislike Eluned, especially as she treats the sweet natured and utterly honourable Robert with such cold disdain. But, slowly and cleverly over the course of the story, Ms. Kingston peels away, layer by layer, Eluned’s prejudices and shows her reluctant and hidden love for Robert, well buried under the baggage her life has acquired over the past eighteen years. Ironically it is the appearance and actions of her despised Norman son-in-law, Ranulf (The King’s Man), which finally knocks down the walls she has erected and we are finally allowed to see the woman she really is. Bravo Elizabeth Kingston – what a compelling, clever story and the fact that you persuaded me to like and admire this woman whom I had disliked for the best part of two books is quite remarkable.

As to the narration – what can I say other than that as usual, Nicholas Boulton gives a faultless performance and shows what a first rate actor he is? His voice is smooth, pleasing and utterly addictive to the listener; anything with his name on it is always going to get my attention. My initial dislike for Eluned was perpetuated by the exceptional manner in which he portrays her cold disdain, the emptiness and hopelessness she feels and can’t change… but then, as her defences begin to crumble, he effects a subtle softening of tone; her voice still recognisable but transformed from cold disdain into loving warmth. Mr. Boulton is one of only a handful of narrators who is equally good at portraying men and women. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Robert – at first buoyant and happy as he meets his beloved after eighteen years apart, but then as he realises his love is not returned, quiet, wary and subdued. And of course, a particular favourite of mine is the fierce Norman lord, Ranulf Ombrier – a fierce man brought to his knees by the love of his warrior wife, Gwenllian and their two little boys. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I hope that this isn’t the last in the series. Hopefully we may get to see what happens to William, Eluned’s sixteen year old son.

Fair, Bright and Terrible is an exciting, heart warming piece of historical fiction with a beautiful romance at its centre and is strongly recommended.

AUDIO REVIEW: Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, narrated by Rosalyn Landor

romancing mister bridgerton audio

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Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London. Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for…well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret…and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone’s preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same – especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide…is she his biggest threat – or his promise of a happy ending?

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Publisher and Release Date: AUDIOBOOK EDITION – Recorded Books, April 2017

Time and Setting: London, 1824
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: Content: 4.5 stars, Narration: 5 stars

Review by Caz

The friends-to-lovers trope is one of my favourites in the genre, and one of my favourite examples of it is Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mister Bridgerton, the fourth book in her iconic series about the eight Bridgerton siblings.
Colin is the third son, and has featured in the previous books as a good-humoured, devil-may-care sort of chap; easy going with a killer smile, good sense of humour, able to laugh at himself and always ready with a quip or witty rejoinder. He’s all of those things, but by the age of thirty-three, has started to feel a little disgruntled at being thought of by practically everyone in society as just “A Bridgerton”. His brother is the viscount, his next eldest brother, Benedict, is making a name for himself as an artist but Colin… well, he’s not sure exactly what and who he is, and doesn’t quite know what he wants to do or to be, either.

Penelope Featherington has also appeared in the previous books as a close friend of the Bridgerton sisters, especially of Eloise. She was an object of catty remarks and ridicule for years, owing to her mother’s tendency to dress her in styles and colours that were completely wrong for her and for that lady’s almost maniacal desire to get her daughters married off. At twenty-eight, Penelope is now firmly on the shelf and is resigned to being the spinster daughter who will care for her mother into old age – although the one good thing about her being on the shelf is that she can dress how she wants and eschew the horrible clothes her mother made her wear.

Being a friend of the Bridgerton sisters means that Penelope has also been frequently in the company of the brothers, too, all of whom are friendly and treat her almost as one of the family, making a point of asking her to dance at balls or seeking her out at other functions. For years, Penelope has harboured a tendre for Colin, but has no hope of a return – why should he look at an unprepossessing woman like her when he’s one of society’s darlings; handsome, charming and witty, he is not without female admirers blessed with both youth and beauty and he can have any woman he wants.

Ms. Quinn freshens up the trope and gives it extra depth by virtue of her characterisation of the two principals. Colin is restless; he travels a lot and in fact spends more time abroad than he does in England. He is tired of being thought of as someone who is only good for a laugh and wants to actually do something with his life but he has no idea what until one day, Penelope inadvertently stumbles upon one of his travel journals and is so engrossed by his writing that she suggests he publish them. At first, Colin is furious at her having read his private journals and they quarrel, but eventually, her genuine enthusiasm and praise for his writing surprise and humble him and start him thinking that perhaps this is what he’s meant to do, and he takes her suggestion to heart.

Previously the perennial wallflower, Penelope has discovered that spinsterhood has its benefits; not only because she can dress as she wants, but because she feels free to be more herself and doesn’t have to put up with her mother’s constant attempts to marry her off. But Penelope has been keeping a huge secret from everyone around her for years; something that started as a way for her to fight back at those who looked down on her and that would ruin her if it ever got out. I’m not going to say more here because it’s a massive spoiler; but this secret is the book’s other major plotline and leads to some major conflict between Colin and Penelope later on.

But the real strength of this instalment in the series is in the characterisation and subtle development of the two leads. Penelope’s infatuation with Colin is of long-standing; she fell for his looks and charm without really knowing him, and during the course of the story discovers that he’s not the perfect man she had imagined. Colin knows Penelope only as the slightly plump, shy friend of his sisters, but through spending time with her, comes to realise that she’s also intelligent, quick-witted and lovely. Neither of them really knows how or why things are changing between them, they just know that they are, and those moments when they both start to really see each other – the best parts of any friends-to-lovers romance – are beautifully done.

Rosalyn Landor is, without question, one of the best narrators of historical romance around and her narrations of these previously unrecorded Bridgerton books (6, 7 and 8 were recorded some time ago, but not books 1-5) have been absolutely stellar. Romancing Mister Bridgerton is no exception; Ms. Landor’s pacing is excellent, her vocal characterisations of every single character are superb and in scenes where large numbers of characters appear, listeners can have no problems whatsoever working out who is speaking, so clear and expert is her manner of differentiating between all of them. It doesn’t matter if a character is old or young, male or female, aristocrat or servant, all are perfectly portrayed. I’m particularly fond of her interpretation of the formidable Lady Danbury, a wonderfully acerbic, perceptive but (secretly) kind elderly dowager of the sort so often found in historicals. Her portrayal of Colin, too, is spot on, and absolutely consistent with the way he was voiced in the earlier books in the series; suitably youthful and with a jaunty air that befits his reputation as a carefree young gentleman about town. But here, Ms. Landor is afforded the chance to explore another side of him, and she does it very well, adding a slight edge to his tone in some moments of heightened emotion or giving him a more seductive, husky note in the more intimate scenes.

If you’re a fan of historical romance audiobooks, you’ve no doubt listened to Rosalyn Landor already and know that her name on the front cover is a guarantee of an excellent narration. If you haven’t tried one, then the Bridgerton books can be listened to in any order, although I think you’ll get more out of them if you listen to them in order, as it will allow you to meet each sibling as they pop in and out of other stories in the series and get to know them better.

Whatever you do, though, Romancing Mister Bridgerton is another must listen for fans of this talented author/narrator pair and for fans of historical romance in general.

AUDIO REVIEW AND GIVEAWAY: A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley, narrated by Alex Wyhdham

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance… but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

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Published and Release Date: Stella Riley, December 2016

Time and Setting: Banbury, Oxfordshire, England 1642-4
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction/ Audiobook
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content, 5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

If you are a fan of historical fiction or historical romance, then you must, must, must, read or listen to Stella Riley’s work, and a good place to start is A Splendid Defiance. (Our review of the book is HERE.) It was this story and another of the author’s books – The Marigold Chain – that initially piqued my interest in this turbulent period in England’s history. Both are superbly researched standalone stories and each is eminently enjoyable. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible to improve upon my enjoyment of the print version of A Splendid Defiance but by employing the superbly talented Alex Wyndham to narrate her powerful story, Ms. Riley has done just that, because Mr. Wyndham brings her exciting, wonderfully romantic feast of a book to multi-dimensional life.

Captain Justin Ambrose is moodily kicking his heels at the Royalist controlled garrison of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire owing to having made an ill-judged remark about one of the King’s favourites. A career soldier of considerable experience, he has earned a formidable reputation and naturally he feels resentful at being stuck in such a backwater. His generally acerbic and sarcastic tongue is even more prominent as the prolonged inactivity begins to take its toll on his temper.

Abigail Radford is a young, sweet, and innocent seventeen year old when this story begins. She lives and works in the home and drapery shop owned by her older brother, Jonas, but this is no happy household, for Jonas is an autocratic, over-bearing bully of a man whose hatred of the Cavaliers at the castle is topped only by his religious fanaticism.

Justin is a man of integrity, honesty and honour and a Royalist to his bones – completely and unwaveringly dedicated to his King and cause; and a man who has sworn off love and marriage. At his first encounter with Abby – during which he saves her from being ravished by a couple of his subordinates – he doesn’t really see her as anything more than a terrified girl. It takes time and several more unplanned meetings before he notices that beneath the extremely plain clothing and white puritanical cap, there is a rather attractive young woman. Any possible furtherance of their acquaintance is delayed by the arrival in Banbury of a large Roundhead contingent, the senior officers of which take up residence at the Radford home. And the first siege of the castle begins. I admire the way Stella Riley grows her love stories in all of her novels but particularly in this one; understated and plausible, it is entirely in keeping with unfolding events. After the first siege is over, the Roundheads ousted and on the run after Royalist re-enforcements arrive, the garrison can breathe again and life returns to some semblance of normality. Ms. Riley then continues to develop the growing attraction between Justin and Abby, throwing them together in various situations which further advance their apparently ill-fated friendship. For how can two people on opposing sides of a civil war ever have a chance at happiness?

Justin is a multi-layered character with many deep dark secrets; even his closest friends know little about him other than he has a well-deserved reputation with the ladies. His is such a believable character, especially when one finds oneself getting cross with him because he’s given Abby an undeserved tongue lashing, upsetting her to the point that it feels as though he’s kicked a puppy. But then, conversely, one finds oneself going all gooey over him when he’s being particularly charming – and by God he certainly can turn it on when he chooses! Abby’s character grows over the course of the story from the timid girl we meet at the outset to an attractive young woman with a lot more oomph than she had to begin with. Justin sets out initially – not entirely altruistically – to help her stand up to, and defy his nemesis, the odious Jonas. But in the end, he’s hoist by his own petard, finding himself drawn more and more to her quiet, unassuming and undemanding presence. Eventually Justin realises that she is the only person in his life who has ever cared for him or gives a damn what happens to him, and their eventual acceptance of the love between them is heartwarming, tender and all the better for the waiting. And as is the norm with Stella Riley, she doesn’t need to resort to explicit love scenes – instead sensuality and tenderness is the order of the day and I was left with a warm glow as she eventually brought these two lovely characters together against all of the odds.

Alex Wyndham’s performance is stupendous. There are few performers who could have tackled such a varied and wide cast of characters and fool the listener into feeling as though they are listening to a rather superior radio play with numerous actors rather than one man’s narrative of a story. As this is a story set in time of war, it features a large number of male characters, but this poses no difficulty as Mr. Wyndham switches effortlessly between a variety of accent, tone and timbre to give each of them a distinct interpretation. I cannot recommend this audiobook highly enough because it has everything that I look for in an historical romance. Filled with atmospheric, superbly researched historical content and a spine tingling romance, A Splendid Defiance has to be awarded a straight 5 star rating for both content and narration, although quite honestly that doesn’t seem high enough. But whatever the star rating, this is another winner for this phenomenal writer/narrator team.

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WE HAVE THREE (3) COPIES OF THIS WONDERFUL AUDIOBOOK TO GIVE AWAY TO THREE LUCKY READERS. TO ENTER, CLICK ON THE RAFFLECOPTER BOX BELOW AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS. THE GIVEAWAY WILL REMAIN OPEN FOR SEVEN DAYS – AFTER THAT, WINNERS WILL BE CONTACTED BY EMAIL.

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Looking Back at 2016 – Our Favourite Books of the Year

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Amazingly, another year has passed, and it’s time for us all to look back at the books we most enjoyed reading in 2016. Here are some of the books chosen by the RHR team as their favourites of the year; if you’ve read any of them do you agree with our assessment? What are your own personal favourites of 2016? Please stop by and tell us what you read this year that you loved!

 


Caz

I’ve had a pretty good year in terms of books; I’ve read and listened to more than 250 titles this year and have rated the majority of them at 4 stars or higher, which is a pretty good strike rate! That said, choosing favourites is always difficult and they change from day to day. So bearing that in mind, here goes…

 

 

A Gentleman’s Position by K.J Charles is the third book in her excellent Society of Gentlemen series, set in the final days of the Regency.  This story takes an in-depth look at the problems inherent in falling in love outside one’s class – as the two protagonists, Lord Richard Vane and his extremely capable valet, David Cyprian struggle to reconcile their feelings for one another with their relative social positions.  The story is compelling, the romance is beautifully written and developed and the sexual chemistry between the principals is absolutely smoking.  This series has without question been one of the best historical romance collections in recent years, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

Forevermore is the seventh and last book in Kristen Callihan;s wonderful Darkest London series of historical paranormals, and it brings this incredibly inventive series to an action packed and very fitting close.  The author skilfully draws together a number of plotlines sewn in earlier books, a real treat for those of us who have followed the series from the beginning; there’s plenty of action, steamy love scenes, a complex, fast-moving plot, heartbreak, angst … in short, Forevermore delivers all the things that have made all the books in this series such compelling reads.  I’m sorry the series has ended, but it ends on a real high, and I fervently hope that Ms. Callihan might one day return to this fantastical twilight world of shifters, angels, GIMs and demons.

Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I do love a bad-boy hero, and there’s no denying that Elizabeth Hoyt set herself quite the task when she decided to turn the gorgeous, manipulative, devious and dangerous Valentine Napier, Duke of Montgomery into a romantic hero.  But she does it with aplomb, and without turning Val into a different character in order to effect his redemption.  The sexy game of cat-and-mouse played between the completely outrageous duke who thinks nothing of wandering around naked (well, he’s gorgeous, so why should he deprive people of the sight of him?!) and having the most inappropriate conversations with his housekeeper; and said housekeeper who is by no means insensible to Val’s charms, but who is sensible enough to know that he’s trying deliberately to rile her and not to take the bait – is wonderfully developed, and the relationship that emerges is one of surprising equality.  Duke of Sin is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and the eponymous duke is one of the most charismatic characters ever to grace the pages of an historical romance.

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley has been one of my favourite historical romances for the past thirty years, so I was delighted when the audiobook version, narrated by the massively talented Alex Wyndham became available just before Christmas.  Set during the English Civil War, the book tells the true story of the small garrison of just over three hundred men who held the Royalist stronghold of Banbury castle in Oxfordshire against an opposing Parliamentary force of almost ten times their number.  Against this superbly presented historical background, Ms. Riley develops an unforgettable romance between cynical, Royalist captain, Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of  a die-hard Puritan.  This is a real treat for anyone who enjoys their historical romance with an emphasis on the historical; the characterisation is superb, the romance is beautifully developed, and the audiobook is performed by one of the best narrators around.  Seriously – don’t miss it.

Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye, narrated by Susie Riddell.  With the tagline – Reader, I murdered him – there’s no question that Jane Steele – the book AND the character – is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and there are a number of key moments and events during this book that relate directly back to the classic novel. But this is ultimately a refreshing and somewhat unusual tale that very quickly takes on a life of its own. Jane is a remarkable and compelling character; a quick-witted survivor who doesn’t take crap from anyone but who nonetheless feels like a woman of her time, and what keeps her the right side of the listeners’ sympathies is that she’s motivated by love and loyalty.  We follow her through her time at school, her subsequent life in London and thence to a position as governess to the ward of Mr. Charles Thornfield, a British, Indian-born ex-army doctor with whom she eventually falls in love.  The writing is fresh and witty and the story is a terrific mixture of gothic romance and detective story featuring a unique protagonist, and I highly recommend the audiobook, as the narration by Susie Riddell is very good indeed.


Heather C.

The Duke of Deception by Darcy Burke – I loved the secrets being kept between the hero and heroine and how that pushed the story forward.  They weren’t simply a complication to tangle over.

The Daredevil Snared by Stephanie Laurens- This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion. It isn’t often I say that!  There is less mystery than in the previous books and more action/adventure – with dire consequences.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Scandal by Kathleen Kimmel. The best romance I have read this year.  The romance felt so real and hot, the characters were infuriating (in the best way), and the story forced the heroine WAY out of her comfort zone! Made me immediately pick up the other books in the series.


Jenny Q

Forevermore by Kristen Callihan

I have been a big fan of the Darkest London series from the very beginning, and while I am sad to see it come to an end, Forevermore is one heck of a satisfying conclusion. If you’re a fan of historical paranormals, or if you’ve never read one and want to give the genre a shot, this series, (along with Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk series), is a great place to start. It’s a complicated world of elementals, werewolves, demons, spirits, and fae, and revolves around the Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals, tasked with managing them all. Forevermore gives readers pretty much everything we want in a series finale. I love how this story brought some threads back together from previous books and showed how everything that has happened to our favorite characters was set in motion and why. It was really cool how Kristen Callihan sort of brought everything full circle, not just for the story world but for some of the characters. The ending made me cry, and the epilogue made me smile. Forevermore is a riveting tale from beginning to end, and a worthy, powerful, and emotional conclusion to an outstanding series.

Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Sally Christie’s debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour. Quickly rising from humble roots, she immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don’t feel my review can do it justice. I can’t wait to see how Sally Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War by Heather Webb, Hazel Gaynor, Beatriz Williams, Jennifer Robson, Jessica Brockmole, Kate Kerrigan, Evangeline Holland, and Lauren Willig

This is an excellent collection of short stories by nine talented historical fiction authors. While the stories are not interconnected, they do all share a common theme, the Armistice that ended World War I, and these stories really capture the conflicting emotions that the end of the war brings. Of course, there is joy and celebration but also a sense of uncertainty. Is it really over? What comes next? What do we do now? What was it all for? How do we go on as before when none of us will ever be the same? The stories are wonderfully varied, giving the reader a glimpse into different aspects of the war and life on the home front in Britain, Belgium, and France. All nine stories are good. There’s not a weak offering among them, though some did resonate with me more than others. All for the Love of You by Jennifer Robson, Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, and Hush by Hazel Gaynor stand out as my favorites. These stories of love and war are beautifully written, encompassing the entire range of emotions and shades of humanity, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.


Lady Cicely

Wicked Highland Wishes by Julie Johnstone

Julie Johnstone has written a riveting tale of love, the desire to do what’s right and throws in some curve balls I didn’t see coming all to great effect.  Bridgette is a strong heroine who goes through ordeals that would truly break a lesser woman.  I bawled at what she goes through then bawled some more as she comes out even stronger.  And Lachlan?  I wasn’t prepared to fall hopelessly in love with this hero!  His adoration, love and patience is what true heroes are made of.

This is one of those rare stories that will sit with you long after you have read it.

Rebel Warrior by Regan Walker

Ms. Walker hits the ground running with this tale of love among war, politics, and betrayal. Her ability to infuse history into her tales without overwhelming the reader is a wonderful talent to have.  Rebel Warrior is an engaging tale that will have the reader thinking they have it figured out only to have the hero and heroine be given a story hiccup and the reader thinking “now I’m not sure” which only fuels the reader’s desire to find out what happens next.

Rescued by a Lady’s Love by Christi Caldwell

Christi Caldwell takes a slight departure from her usual writing style by going a little over to the dark side.  This little trip is a heart wrenching tale of two people who have every right to hate the world and the circumstances that have forced them into that world.  While keeping with the description of the Duke of Blackthorne from previous stories Ms. Caldwell slowly peels the layers back revealing how and why he is the way he is.  She makes the reader feel every ounce of pain and self-loathing both characters suffer and at the same time giving hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Blythe: Schemes Gone Amiss by Collette Cameron

Another hit by the extremely talented Collette Cameron that will have you laughing & crying all at the same time. Her wit combined with the strength of her characters will draw you in and not let you go.  Looking forward to her next installment to see which Culpepper Miss has me laughing out loud.

Lady Wesley

My favorite reads of 2016 include some old best-loved romance writers and a new-to-me author of mystery/romance stories.

After a fairly ‘meh’ first book in The Ravenels series, Lisa Kleypas got her groove back with Marrying Winterbourne. Rhys Winterbourne joins the ranks of Derek Craven (Dreaming of You) and Lord St. Vincent (Devil in Winter) as one of her most memorable and enticing heroes. I listened to the audio version narrated by Mary Jane Wells, who gets 10+ stars for her performance. Her Rhys Winterbourne is simply the sexiest, swoonworthiest hero I’ve ever heard from a female narrator, and I’m reliably informed that her Welsh accent is excellent. (It is – Ed.)

Once Upon a Dream was a triple delight for me. Two of my favorite authors: Mary Balogh and Grace Burrowes. One of my favorite settings: country house parties. My favorite duke – the Duke of All Dukes: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. No way was I not going to like these two novellas. Balogh’s story takes us back Bedwyn World, a place that I came to love when reading her Slightly and Simply series. Our heroine, Miss Eleanor Thompson, played a secondary role in Slightly Dangerous, when her sister Christine married the top-lofty Duke. Eleanor appeared again in Simply Perfect, when Claudia Martin married the Marquess of Attingsborough, and Eleanor took over Claudia’s role as headmistress of a girls’ school in Bath. It was great fun to see this forty-year-old lady get her HEA. Burrowes gives us a widowed father of young boys who play matchmaker for their father and the daughter of an immensely wealthy cit. As usual, Burrowes excels at writing adorable yet realistically mischievous and exasperating children.

Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby series of four novels and one novella – each of them first-rate – features Keira Darby and Sebastian Gage. Now comes the fifth novel in the series, As Death Draws Near, and I believe it is the best yet. Keira and Gage interrupt their honeymoon to investigate the murder of a nun at a convent in Ireland. Although the mystery drives the plot, this book is also a strongly character-driven love story. It is absolutely lovely to watch Keira and Gage navigate through the early days of their marriage. Keira has grown since we met her in The Anatomist’s Wife, but she still harbors insecurities relating to her unhappy first marriage, the notoriety resulting from her work, and her rejection by society. As for Sebastian Gage, he remains handsome, stalwart, and devoted to Keira. His character is not as inclined to introspection as hers, but we do see him trying to navigate, not always successfully, between being Kiera’s husband and being her partner in investigation. Anna Lee Huber is a supremely talented author, and these books are complex, impeccably plotted, and clearly well-researched.


Sara

Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen

The idea of a Regency era “Fixer” who is both a peer and a woman shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. Kelly Bowen allows readers to quickly forget the implausibility of her storyline by engaging us with two highly intelligent characters who match wits, clash over control and somehow fall in love while searching for a kidnapped woman. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the investigation underlying all of their interactions but the story works best in the small moments where the heroine Ivory is allowed to be both strong and independent but still have a woman’s heart to be lost to the right partner.

The Hunter by Kerrigan Byrne

I didn’t believe that Kerrigan Byrne could create a darker and more tortured hero than she did in last year’s The Highwayman but somehow she turned a sociopath into a man to fall in love with. The emotional walls Christopher Argent has erected to protect himself slowly crumble when he interacts with his target Millie LeCour and he begins to see the value of living through her eyes. Mille has her own problems to overcome but the brilliance of her character is that she meets her challenges with courage and never lets them damage her spirit. The mix of his dark soul to her inner light makes their relationship all the more intense. Twists in the story show a reader that sometimes true evil can hide behind the friendliest of faces while true love can heal over scars built from a lifetime of pain.

To Lure a Proper Lady by Ashlyn Macnamara

This book introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year. Dysart starts off as a snarky Bow Street Runner full of contempt for the nobility but is slowly revealed to be a principled and honorable man. This story also had one of the best romantic partnerships with Dysart and his heroine Lizzie investigating the suspicious illness of her father along with other problems around the estate. I was reminded of the TV show Castle and the partnership of Castle/Beckett in how well Dysart and Lizzie work together but also tease and dance around their intense sexual chemistry. Dysart’s cleverness and dry wit alone make this book a keeper and the romance he finds with Lizzie made it all the more enjoyable.

Do You Want to Start a Scandal by Tessa Dare

In a year full of drama Tessa Dare delivers a romantic-comedy that merges two separate series into a satisfying conclusion for them both. It’s a meeting of opposites when a buttoned-up former spy tangles with a spirited woman to solve a whodunit and save their reputations. Seeing the long suffering Charlotte Highwood all grown up and finding her match was so much fun! The lighter tone of the storyline allows for outrageously humorous moments such as a regency sex-ed discussion full of modern iconography, a child detective on the trail of a “murderer” and a completely garbled declaration of love. There are serious moments too but they never detract from the pure entertainment value of the book.

Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larkin

This was the surprise hit of 2016 for me. Emily Larkin mixes Historical and Paranormal elements into a book that never skimps on characters to sell the fantasy. Pushing the limits of the “woman in pants” storyline by adding the quirk of magic, the title character Charlotte Appleby experiences life for a few weeks as a woman embracing her sexuality and as a man understanding friendship and cameraderie. Charlotte’s physical transformation rather than just a disguise adds a subtext (perhaps inadvertently) about the nature of attraction and of gender being something intrinsic to the person rather than how they look on the outside. I loved seeing Charlotte discover that magic comes in many forms, from the supernatural kind to the type that sparks between people perfect for each other.


Wendy

There was never any doubt that a Stella Riley novel would feature in my ‘best of books published in 2016’ but which to choose? It was extremely difficult as she has had four audio books and one print published this year. In the end I settled on the long awaited Lords of Misrule, the fourth in her Civil War series. And my reason? It’s simply fabulous – a great feast of a book combining what I love best, terrifically researched historical content and a subtle but beautifully developed romance.

Lucinda Brant will always have a place on any ‘best of’ list of mine if she’s had something published within the year. This time she has brought together her fabulous Salt Hendon books in a boxed set in both a print version AND an audio version with the stupendously talented Alex Wyndham narrating it. With both being published within 2016 I’ve had the loveliest of times both reading and listening, and being transported back in time to Ms. Brant’s knowledgeably written and extensively researched, opulent and exciting Georgian world.

One of the queens of historical romance began a new series this year and in her usual understated, subtle manner, Mary Balogh has hooked me in. Someone to Love is an original and fascinating start to her new series and I was thrilled to not only read it but but also to have the pleasure of discussing the characters personally with Ms. Balogh at the Historical Romance Retreat. This author doesn’t need to rely on complicated plot lines to sell her books – her strengths lie in her years of writing and life experience which I feel always comes across, and I love everything she produces.

One of my greatest reading pleasures has always been historical fiction and in particular books about the Plantagenets. There are no historical fiction writers whom I enjoy more than Elizabeth Chadwick and The Autumn Throne, the third and final book in her fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine series is quite simply superb. Ms.Chadwick’s knowledge of the period and scholarship is mind boggling. All of her books are eloquently written, with exceptional attention to detail, but this series in particular really struck a chord with me and I finished it with a thirst to learn as much as I could about this fascinating historical character.

My final choice is a bit of a departure for me. K.J Charles is a new-to-me author in 2016 and was recommended by a respected reviewer friend. M/M historical romance is not something I had ever considered trying, nor to be honest, even knew existed. But I’m so glad I gave this author a try because I loved her Society of Gentlemen series and in particular, A Gentleman’s Position. This is such a clever story, taking place at a time when gentlemen could be executed for their predilections. But this story is about so much more than that, and the way the author develops the plot and brings it all to a satisfactory and plausible conclusion is very skilful. The love between her characters is tender and believable and the historical content is in-depth, real and fascinating.


All books in this list are linked to Amazon, so click to find out more!

 

AUDIO REVIEW: Katie Mulholland by Catherine Cookson – Narrated by Susan Jameson

katie-mulhollandPurchase Now from Audible via Amazon.

Some women are destined to arouse in men either fierce hatred or insatiable desire. Such a woman was Katie Mulholland.

At 15, a scullery maid in the house of the Rosires, she had been raped by the master. Now, many years later, she had enough money to maintain three carriages if she wanted to, and she was on her way to see Bernard Rosier under very different circumstances.

There was no pride in Katie Mulholland’s heart, however, only fear, for half of Tyneside still talked about the way she had flouted convention, and sniggered about the way she had made her money. So she had decided that her only hope was to climb above them, and that she would conquer her fear with power…

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Publisher and Release Date: Audible Studios, August 2016 (Originally published 1967)

Time and Setting: 1860 – WWII – North East England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars content/5 stars narration

Review by Wendy

Catherine Cookson’s tales of northern England were a part of my growing up. I have many on my ‘keeper’ shelf and have read many of my favourites by her, over and over again. She was a South Tyneside lass, illegitimate and born into abject poverty with a ‘sister’ she later discovered was her mother. Most of her stories are based on the people and places she was familar with. Her stories are gritty, shocking, sometimes sad but always real and compelling, and it is obvious that the poverty she writes of has been inspired by and lived through, not just researched. There is always the obligatory happy ending, but it is not easily reached. Ms.Cookson’s characters are, in my opinion always far more realistic than the norm – very few hearts and roses for her heroes/heroines. And one of the things I have always loved about her writing is that these heroes and heroines are not always beautiful or classically handsome – often they are working men and women who have suffered hardships and misery but who almost always triumph over adversity.

Katie Mulholland spans a period of some eighty odd years, beginning when Katie is just fifteen and has been working as a scullery maid at ‘the big house’ owned by the local landowners and coal mining family, the Rosiers. The tenants and workers of the Rosiers are treated abominably, they live in houses not fit for animals, work in the family mine, and even have to spend their hard earned ‘brass’ (money) on groceries at vastly inflated costs at the company shop. Katie is considered by her cohorts to be lucky not to be working down the mine or in the local rope works. A beautiful, sunny natured child, she is adored by her family and every fortnight, her trip across the moors on her afternoon off brings light into their soul destroying existence. Then one day Katie is brought home in disgrace, she is pregnant and will not name the father of her child for fear of what will happen when her father retaliates; as she knows he will. Bernard Rosier, the eldest son, raped her on the night of his engagement ball and, fearing the repercussions should his fiancée’s powerful family discover his perfidy, forces Katie into marriage with the mine supervisor, Mark Bunting, a man who is despised by the pit men. He holds the miner’s livelihoods in the palm of his hand and by marrying him, Katie will earn the derision of the local people. She marries against the wishes of her family, thinking to save them, but as it turns out, nothing can stop the terrible and tragic series of events which sees Katie and her family on the road with her baby daughter. By now Katie has become the lynchpin of her family. Like children, they all look to her for guidance, and eventually, because of the overwhelming love she feels for them and also the guilt as a result of her pregnancy, she is forced into making a heart-rending decision which will have far reaching consequences. She may think that she has left the Rosier family behind, but her life is inextricably linked with them forever.

Katie meets and eventually marries a Swedish/Danish ship’s captain, Andree Franenkel, whom she calls Andy and, through him becomes a rich and powerful woman. But again and again, her life is touched by the vindictive and tyrannical Bernard Rosier who holds her accountable for every ill that has ever befallen him and refers to her as ‘the Mullholland woman’.

Katherine Cookson’s characters, are real, down-to-earth and intuitively developed. Bernard Rosier, though initially handsome and powerful, degenerates into a dissolute, menacing and frightening monster and each time he made an appearance I was on the edge of my seat. Katie is a beautiful and talented young women, but no matter how powerful she becomes, she never quite conquers her fear of Bernard Rossier and such is the power of Catherine Cookson’s writing that we, the reader, feel that fear, which is palpable and overshadows Katie’s entire life. Andy is just adorable, large, blonde, bearded and older than her by some sixteen years, he is utterly captivated by her from the first night he meets her. It is Andy who is Katie’s salvation and it is he who recognises that the only way he can help his ‘Kaa-tee’ kick poverty and her fear of Bernard Rossier is by making her rich and powerful and sets out to do just that – and succeeds with amazing results.

Susan Jameson, a British actress of some repute, is absolutely superb as the narrator of Katie Mulholland and handles the large cast of male and female characters, northern dialect, upper classes and – later on in the story – an American, with aplomb. I don’t believe that there is another actress who could capture and hold without wavering, and without putting a foot wrong, the dialects, humour and characters through almost twenty one hours of narration in the way that she does. Considering that this story spans such a long period, Katie’s voice goes from a youthful fifteen year old, through to a very old lady and Susan Jameson adapts her own tone and timbre to take account of this ageing process whilst still making Katie very recognisable. Andy’s English, spoken with a strong Scandinavian accent and an undoubtedly male, deeper intonation, is superbly done and the all consuming love he feels for his ‘Kaa-tee’ shines through and is really quite moving at times; even the jaunty sailor in him is apparent.

I just loved this feast of a book, one of Catherine Cookson’s earlier novels, first published in the 1960s. Susan Jameson brings it to glittering life with her very talented acting skills; this is no light listen and it is one which will probably leave the listener feeling wrung-out. Nevertheless I highly recommend it. There are more and more of this author’s books becoming available in audio, all narrated by Susan Jameson and I am holding my breath and waiting for two all time favourites to become available – The Dwelling Place and Kate Hannigan.

AUDIO REVIEW: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence, narrated by Katherine Littrell

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

First published privately in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned from wider publication in the UK until 1960 and was the subject of censorship and book banning in the United States and elsewhere. Its erotic subject material, colorful language, and discussion of interclass relations were deemed obscene.

Now deemed a classic work of artistic merit written before its time, D.H. Lawrence’s thoughtfully penned novel scrutinizes marriage, infidelity, and the things people do to achieve physical and emotional happiness. The novel’s frank approach to sex and desire infuses Lady Chatterley’s Lover with a modern sensibility that rings as true and thought-provoking in the present as upon its first scandalous publication.

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Publisher and Release Date: Listen2aBook.com, August 2016

Time and Setting: Post WWI – Derbyshire, England
Heat Level: 1.5
Genre: Classic Literature
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars content/3.5 narration

Review by Wendy

I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960’s not long after it had been released for public consumption – for all of the wrong reasons! The book was whispered about and clandestinely read by school children (myself included), mostly because of its notoriety, and I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand or care about it’s deeper meaning. Reading, or in this case, listening, to it again, with a more mature view on life, I found the writing to be quite modern, with a lot of what was written being still pertinent or topical nearly ninety years after publication, although it is quite blatantly misogynistic. It is obvious to me why Lawrence was considered to be a man ahead of his time. What struck me throughout though, was the utter cynicism in tone; the characters don’t seem to like each other, which casts a very dreary pall on the story. There is no joy, no one is happy – not even when they are engaging in their very lacklustre sexual encounters.

The story is set post WWI when women were just beginning to emerge as a force to be reckoned with, and the very backbone of the upper classes is beginning to crumble. Constance (Connie) married Clifford Chatterley before he went off to war and they had had a short, normal, but insipid married life before their separation and he returned a badly injured man. He was not expected to live but made a surprisingly good recovery, albeit he is now confined to a wheeled chair and paralysed from the waist down. A baronet, he accepts his lot in life with equanimity and settles down to rule his little part of Derbyshire. The Chatterley’s lives plod on in a rather dull routine, the dullness felt mostly by Connie who is almost constantly at her husband’s beck and call. His own life is reasonably interesting; he begins to write seriously, takes an active interest in his coal mine and has visits from friends who engage in intellectual conversations in which Connie is not invited to participate. She sits quietly in the corner without comment whilst her husband and his cronies talk in great depth about sex, politics, the industrialisation of the Midlands, the class divide etc. I felt quite irritated on Connie’s behalf for the way she is quite summarily dismissed as a nonentity by her husband and his gang of ‘Hooray Henries’. I wanted to give her a shake but this is the 1920’s and women are still fighting for all women to have the right to vote, let alone the right to an opinion. I think what annoyed me most was the fact that Connie just accepts being put down; a colourless character overall, she had only really grown a little more on me by the end of the story.

Clifford begins to think that he might like an heir to succeed him and kind of gives Connie permission to have a quiet, discreet, affair and will accept any child conceived as his own – as long as the sire is intelligent and worthy. The insular and bitter gamekeeper – Oliver Mellors, is the man – although she doesn’t really choose him; he just crooks his finger, tells her to lie down and the deed is done! What an anticlimax. The sex is described in what I thought to be quite a degrading manner; Mellors had already decided he would live his life alone without sex after a disastrous marriage, but hey ho, here’s the lady of the manor apparently needing a stud. The first encounters between them come across as a man taking his own pleasure with no thought for hers; if she finds any – and later, occasionally she does –  it’s quite by accident. I was at a loss to understand why she kept going back for more, but she does, and it doesn’t get much better. I found his references to his ‘John Thomas’ and her ‘Lady Jane’, laughable… really? It’s at times like these that it is easy to remember that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written by a man.

The new-to-me, narrator Katherine Littrell does a good job in the telling of this rather boring, long winded story. She is an Australian and I could detect a slight inflection but it does not override or spoil the listening experience. In fact I enjoyed the narration far more than I did the content. Miss Littrell has a pleasant, melodious voice and switches effortlessly between characters so that they are recognisable, especially in the scenes where Clifford and his gang of cronies are in deep discussion. She is adept at capturing the mixed cast of upper class characters, both male and female, but her Derbyshire accent leaves something to be desired. Given that the book is set in Derbyshire and the lower classes (including the gamekeeper), play a large part in the story, this niggled at me. Still Miss Littrell is a narrator I will watch out for in the future as I liked her performance overall .

The whole story is based around a woman’s relationship with her rather needy, demanding husband, his striving to increase his already massive ego, and her illicit sex romps with their gamekeeper; which by today’s writing standards are pretty tame and uninspiring. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is definitely not a keeper for me.  I accept that Lawrence was a good writer but – rather like marmite – he is not to my taste.

 

The Soldier (Windhams/The Duke’s Obsession #2) by Grace Burrowes, narrated by James Langton

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His idyllic estate is falling down from neglect, and nightmares of war give him no rest. Then Devlin St. Just meets his new neighbor….

With her confident manner hiding a devastating secret, his lovely neighbor commands all of his attention, and protecting Emmaline becomes Devlin’s most urgent mission.

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Publisher and Release Date: Tantor Audio, June 2016

Time and Setting: Yorkshire, England 1818
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3,5 stars (4 stars for the story / 3 stars for the narration)

Review by Wendy

I always enjoy Grace Burrowes quirky writing style, it has a warmth and ‘homeliness’ about it which is quite unique and very recognisable as the author’s very own. The Soldier second in her Windham series, features Lt. Colonel Devlin St.Just, newly created first Earl of Rosecroft, who is the epitome of this author’s likeable, down-to-earth, male characters. Although I haven’t read all of the various series’ attached to this book, it wasn’t too hard to follow – even with the numerous friends and family members who pop up throughout the story, and I would say that it can be read/listened to as a standalone.

Devlin St.Just is the eldest – though illegitimate – son of the Duke of Windham, but lived with the Windham family from the age of five and has always been accepted and loved by the duchess and his younger half-siblings. For most of his adult years, Devlin was a soldier and fought with honour at Waterloo. Throughout the story it is obvious that he is suffering from what we know today as PTSD; obviously a sensitive and caring man he is tortured by flashbacks, nightmares and even – initially – impotence. He also suffers with a serious drink problem which his younger brother, Valentine, has helped him to overcome, although he still has to fight his urges for the liquor bottle – especially on a bad day.

On his arrival at his new estate, Devlin is presented with his predecessor’s by-blow, a small girl who was recognised by her father and grandfather, the old earl. Devlin understands, with the knowledge of someone-who-has-been-there-and-done-that, how important it is for the all but feral little Bronwyn – or Winnie as she is most commonly known – to be loved and accepted. It’s one of the really nice aspects of the story; the way Grace Burrowes shows this connection and understanding between the fully grown, product-of-his-past, man, and the tiny vulnerable little girl. Along with Winnie comes her very attractive, also illegitimate cousin, Emmaline Farnham. Emmie has lived on the edge of village society, barely tolerated by all but the local vicar who has a long-held affecton for her. Emmie is the only one who has ever really shown Winnie love, but as she is forced to earn a living – working herself into the ground in the process – baking for the local community, she has not been able to give much of her attention to her charge.

Emmie and Devlin are drawn together by their similar pasts but also by the love and concern they share for Winnie. It soon becomes apparent that the two belong together but Emmie has a secret which she is determined not to reveal, and for the second half of the book, as their attraction to each other ratchets up, she seems to do nothing but cry! And whilst I admire the fact that Grace Burrowes doesn’t shy away from mentioning bodily functions, I did get a bit fed up with Devlin talking about her ‘menses’ being the cause. Apparently with five sisters he knew all about such things! However, menses and bodily functions aside, I really liked Devlin; he develops throughout the story into a thoroughly decent and likeable man, his insecurities only making him more endearing and loveable. The author captures little Winnie perfectly. The child reacted as I would expect a child of her age to behave in certain situations, especially given the insecurities and tragedies she has suffered.

I do not think that James Langton was a good choice to narrate this story. Whilst he captures Devlin quite adequately and effectively portrays his caring side, I found his use of an Irish accent a little over the top. Devlin had lived with his Irish mother for only the first five years of his life and I find it difficult to believe that after well over twenty years living amongst the aristocracy, he wouldn’t have lost his strong Irish brogue. Emmie is described as extremely attractive with long blonde hair (which, in true Grace Burrowes fashion, Devlin likes to brush for her!), but as I said previously she cries a lot, and Langton’s high pitched tone of voice highlights her as a rather whingy, whining, misery. She was not a character I liked a great deal anyway, but the tone of voice employed dispelled any image in my mind of attractiveness. The vicar, whom Grace Burrowes indicated as handsome, caring and tolerant in her written portrayal of him has been given a lisping, foppish voice with a rather patronising edge to it. But by far the worst characterisation is that of Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery (Douglas – Lonely Lords, #8) apparently a rather dishy, youngish man, with a wife, stepdaughter and new baby who sounds like a pompous, ninety year old, his voice croaky and elderly.

As usual Grace Burrowes’ use of Americanisms is annoying. The sorts of muffins we eat for breakfast in England are toasted and not the sorts of things you can just put in your pocket (unless you want a pocket full of melted butter and jam!) and there is even mention of rabid dogs! Did we have rabid dogs in England in the nineteenth century? And a swing on the porch – reminiscent of the Deep South of America but not something I’d expect to find on a Yorkshire estate. On the whole, though, The Soldier is a solidly and empathetically written story, covering quite a few serious issues which are still relevant today.